france arrests
© Reuters / Jean-Paul Pelissier
The number of people arrested since the beginning of the massive popular protests that have gripped France for weeks has surpassed a staggering 4,500, with critics calling the actions of the authorities crackdown on democracy.

The French police have detained a total of 4,523 people in connection to the so-called Yellow Vests protests that united tens of thousands of people across the country discontent with taxes polices and fuel prices hikes. Of those almost 4,100 still remain in police custody, the French BFM TV broadcaster reported, citing police sources.

Earlier, the French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner confirmed that more than 1,900 people were arrested in connection to the protests in just one day - on Saturday, December 8. More than 1,700 of them were taken into custody. However, the French media later reported that the number of those arrested on that day might in fact have reached 2,000 people.

Part of those arrests seemed to be a preventive measure as they occurred before the protests. And the practice alarmed many.

"When we [see] 1,000 people [detained] and 540 of them released two days later, it is obvious that there were at least 540 absolutely unjustified arrests," a Paris lawyer, Raphael Kempf, told BFM, commenting on the issue. "Being locked up for 48 hours, they were deprived of their right to join a demonstration and this is shocking for a democratic country," he added.

The government, however, justified its approach by saying that there were in fact no preventive arrests but only "preventive control" measures. The checks consisted in ID checks and baggage inspections, Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez explained, adding that those "possessing weapons" were subsequently taken into custody as they were found in breach of law.

According to the media reports, many arrests were indeed made during the searches and ID checks. However, some reports also suggested that people were arrested for simply having protective gear such as gas masks with them while others reported that the arrests affected those, who did nothing wrong at all.

Comment: They had gangs of plain-clothes thugs wearing balaclavas and knuckle-dusters just wade into crowds and grab people at random.

"Today, we [see] the militarization of police," Kempf said, adding that the officers often use weapons that "can mutilate or kill", so one cannot just go to a protest without protection. The Yellow Vests protests indeed saw some unfortunate incidents, which led to some people being crippled or even killed with police munitions.

Last weekend, a man in the city of Bordeaux had his hand blown off as he allegedly sought to recover and throw back a police crowd-control grenade. A week later, an elderly woman died after being hit in the face by what is believed to be a police tear gas grenade.

One cannot reasonably accuse people of intending to commit violent acts during a protest just because they have swimming goggles or a bottle of saline in their bags, the lawyer added.

A head of a French law firm, Avi Bitton, who defends a couple and their son arrested ahead of the Saturday protests, told the French L'Express weekly that his clients did not possess any weapons but were still detained for about 14 hours on the day of the rallies. "Following an ID check" on the Saturday morning, "they were taken to a police station and did not return until 10 p.m. (local time) (21:00 GMT)," he said, calling such treatment "abusive."

"What we are facing now is an authoritarian drive for power," the lawyer said. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a national address on Monday that "there is no excuse for the violence" and "there will be no pardon to those, who caused it." In Paris and some other cites, protests turned into riots that involved clashes with police, broken windows, looted stores.

"As soon as violence starts, this freedom ends. We need to restore the state order and we are going to take all measures required to do so," the French leader said, admitting, however, that people do have a "right to indignation."

The unrest, triggered by the controversial plans for fuel price and tax hikes, plunged France into chaos for almost a month, turning the streets of some cities, including the French capital of Paris, into battlefields and leaving scores of injured. On December 8 alone, more than 260 people sustained injuries across France.

The massive public mobilization eventually forced the government to abandon the new tax plans and announce some other policy measures, including a €100 ($113) minimum wage increase, tax-free overtime pay and end-of-year bonuses. Although the move was criticized by the opposition politicians, more than a half of the French believed that the Yellow Vests achieved their goals and the protests should now stop.